While it is not yet guaranteed, and certainly there have been last minute changes, political party representatives in Iraq tell us it looks very likely that Jawad al Maliki will be Iraq's next prime minister.
Here's a thumbnail analysis:
Why he's good
Sources told me Maliki is a pragmatic negotiator. He has been described as the 'architect' of the national unity government. He attended nearly every negotiating meeting over the past four months (a track record better than many of his colleagues) and was the one burning up the telephones, calling the Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In the process, he earned their trust. A negotiator said he's "someone with mud on his hands."
Also… Maliki is not Jaafari. Critics say Jaafari's performance was abysmal and that starting fresh with practically anyone is better than going ahead with the same leader who seemed unable to deal with Iraq's growing sectarian violence, Shiite militias, Sunni-led insurgency, and serious economic problems.
Maliki is also seen as more practical and straightforward than Jaafari, who was poetic, intellectual, vague and wiley.
Why he's bad
Poltiical analysts say Maliki is not a strong, independent thinker. He has been a Dawa party functionary his entire life and is seen as someone who can be influenced from the sidelines by powerful Shiite figures like SCIRI's Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He is therefore not likely to tackle their militias, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army.
Also, Maliki is not an international statesman. He speaks English poorly and has limited experience with the West. He has lived extensively in Syria and Iran.
The Sunni Arabs also don't like that Maliki was a member of the de-Baathification committee, which has been in charge of purging Iraqi institutions of Baath party members and has been accused of conducting witch hunts of Sunni Arabs.
What this means for the United States
This is great news for the United States, even if Maliki is not the person American officials would have chosen... he is not. At least now, however, the United States has a government to talk to. For the past four months there has been no effective Iraqi government. The U.S. has been in an awkward position of 'transferring authority' to an Iraqi government that didn't exist. Soon, U.S. officials will be able to say, 'there is a democratically elected full-term government in place, the first one in Iraq's modern history,' and that the United States has a legitimate counterpart to deal with. The plan is for this full-term government to start asserting itself so that it can take on more responsibility, especially in terms of security so that when General George Casey (the top U.S. commander here) reviews troops strength later this spring he can confidently reduce troop levels. Another advantage, if this government lasts its full four-year term (see next point) there will finally be some consistency on the Iraqi side. Most of the Iraqi politicians of the past two years have been focused mainly on elections and constitutional negotiations and not on their main job of running the country.
The big dangers
There is a threat that too much damage has been done and the that government will not be strong enough to reverse the trend. Also, the government, so laborious to create, could collapse during the first major national crisis. One political analyst told me tonight he doesn't expect the government to last six months. Watch for a political crisis in the run-up to the next vote on amendments to the constitution.